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Every so often, a group comes along that redefines rap, that by the sheer weight of its originality and perspective, forces the genre to move in new directions. The Black Eyed Peas is not one of those groups. It could have been. Or maybe it will be. But right now, it’s not happening. The Peas, consisting of Will.I.Am., Apl.de.Ap., and Taboo, labor in that most difficult of vineyards known as alternative rap, an arena defined by its contempt for hiphop’s asphalt parables, self-glorification, and materialism.
What Behind the Front, the Peas’ debut release, proves is that it’s possible for “alternative” music to become that with which it is most disgusted, a hackneyed, predictable offering predigested by the infinite belly of commerce. In the case of the Peas, their user-friendly sounds, along with those of neo-gospel act Kirk Franklin, are supposed to be the post-Death Row face of Interscope Records, a calculated attempt to remove the label from the sights of that Rottweiler of public morality, C. Delores Tucker.
In the music industry, a formula works until it gets formulaic. Thus, classic East Coast alternative acts like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul may have shared any number of musical elements, but remained thoroughly distinct in their aesthetic. The same could be said for West Coast bands such as Pharcyde and Freestyle Fellowship. But dreadlocks and jazz riffs do not an alternative icon make. On Behind the Front, the Peas come off as a melange of the obvious influences, and are, in effect, stewing in someone else’s pot. The most unforgivable instance is, ironically, not a particular song, but a series of game-show skits that are damn near plagiarized from De La Soul’s Three Feet High and Rising. Not that the 16-cut release is bereft of shining moments; they’ve simply arrived too late to inspire.
The R&B-suffused “The Way You Make Me Feel” is one such moment. The subdued keys and understated drum and guitar contributions result in a perfectly lazy pace, and the mellifluous vocals provided by Kim Hill put this track over the top. But by and large, the attempts at sparse, minimalist sounds miss the lightly seasoned bliss of Tribe and instead come off as undercooked, sounding as if one key spice were left out of the mix. It’s probably because on this outing, the Peas nailed down all the production work themselves. The upshot is that Behind the Front lacks a certain diversity of sound. Almost every track is defined by guitar and punctuated by the same kinds of percussion. The trio supposedly turned down offers from the likes of Dr. Dre in favor of producing their own tracks. And nowhere is handling one’s freshman production more treacherous than in alternative rap. The fields are strewn with underwhelming debut releases.
But in an odd way, the artistic shortfall may work in the Peas’ favor. The Fugees’ debut was purely sedative, and the first outing of the Philadelphia verbalists the Roots was less than stellar. Meanwhile, Digable Planets were critically hailed in their rookie year and have gone on to fine careers with their local temp agencies. Or, as my grandmother would put it, a bad start can make for a good end. Word has it that the Peas can hang with the best of them when it comes to live performance, and that might prove to be their sustaining grace. I get the impression not that this is an untalented collection of artists, but that something was lost in the translation.
For one thing, 16 tracks is a little ambitious for a debut, and the length predictably indicates that the group has failed to pare down the release to its best takes. Consequently, Behind the Front oscillates between high and low instead of creating an even vibe. Accomplishments like the dark allegory “Karma” exist next door to inane cuts like “Be Free.” The former manages to break out of the aesthetic mold, featuring midtempo drum with a tantalizing wisp of Bob Marley’s voice and a nearly subliminal salsa guitar. While the lyrical offerings on most of the other cuts are distressingly average, the noir verbalizing of Will.I.Am. on “Karma” shows much greater promise. The latter, however, is simply a bad song led by the cheap hook “All I want is to be free.” So does everyone in the nonindustrial world, but that fact alone isn’t reason enough to make a record about it.
The CD peaks again, a full seven tracks later, with the hard-edged “Head Bobs,” on which the trio reaches a perfect equilibrium of sedate sounds and hyperkinetic rhyme flow. The Peas run roughshod over a percussive guitar underlay, brutalizing the track like a Southside loan shark making good on a debt. But in order to get to this point, we have to endure the sleep-inducing “Love Won’t Wait.” The noteworthy “What It Is” avoids the trap of Puffyism, the lifting of an entire song and rapping badly over it, in favor of live musicians and a creative interpolation of the ’70s standard “Funkin’ for Jamaica.”
“Positivity,” the final track, does little to stand out from the rest and furthers the point that the pearls on Behind the Front could have been strung together in a tighter, shorter, better product. Overall, this CD is the sound of underachievement. But this is a young group that may catch the sophomore wave that was so essential to the development of their predecessors. In more ways than one, the Peas ain’t done yet.